In June, I finished the Zanskar traverse for the second time. Initially, I was planning to do a more remote trek, but unexpected high spring snowfall made me decide to do the Zanskar travers (read: a trek with bridged rivers). Other, more remote regions involve fording big rivers, whereby locals informed me these would be impossible due to the unexpected snowmelt.
So, Zanskar again. It is a good all round introduction into Ladkah. It offers gorgeous Tibetan style villages, monestaries and high passes. Unfortunatly, the Indian army is constructing a road along the route, aiming to provide an alternative for the Manali-Leh road, the current lifeline of the Ladakh region (Ladakh is situated east of the disputed Kashmir region, thus of high strategic importance to the Indian armay).
The road already shortend the trek as one can take now hitch rides or take taxis along the lightly used road (mostly unsurfaced). But in a couple of years, this trek might suffer the same consequence as the Annapurna circuit trek.
Leh, the 'de facto' capital of Ladakh, is where most trekkers arrive and leave from outside Ladakh. Most travelers fly in from Delhi (+/- 1h flight), whilst some budget conscious travelers travel the Manali-Leh road, taking at least three days to travel overland from Delhi to Leh (not my cup of tea, also bearing in mind the Manali-Leh road often is in bad shape and can be closed in case of sudden snowfall).
All flights operate early in the morning. As most international flight from Europe also arrive and leave early in the morning, one will most often have to stay overnight in Delhi going to and/or coming back from Leh. My default advice would be to get a flight that arrives in Delhi very early in the morning, allowing you to travel further to Leh on the same day. Your international flight back to your home country will often leave also very early in the morning – virtually all planes from international carriers will return only a few hours after arriving in Delhi – forcing you to stay overnight in Delhi. My advice is thus spend your days in Delhi AFTER Ladakh. This will also create some redundancy in case flights back from Leh are cancelled (happens exceptionally – I have the impression Leh airport involves visual landing).
Currently, three airlines fly the Delhi-Leh leg: GoAir, Jet Airways and Air India. All Delhi-Leh flights can be booked over the Internet, although I found GoAir often to be late in opening their bookings.
Within Ladakh, travelling around the region can be tiresome. This is certaintly true to access the Zanskar trailheads. When trekking from east to west, it involves a full day drive going to the trailhead (Darcha) and half a day ride to return to Leh from the end of the trek (Lamayuru)
The eastern trailhead is about 3k before the ‘teahouse settlement’ of Darcha. When going independently, one has three options to get to the trailhead:
- The regular state bus (never used it, but I have been told they might have an overnight stopover somewhere along the road)
- The ‘tourist’ bus (use this option when comfort is your priority)
- The ‘cannon ball’ shared taxi (the fastest option but it does leave at 2 am. my advice would be to purchase an extra empy seat as a full taxi might not be comfortable).
The cost of all three options is cheap by western standards, keeping in mind the wear and tear & the length of the journey. E.g. the cannon ball taxi cost 1200 pp.
For the return journey from Lamayuru, the state bus, leaving at +/- 9 am. Cost is very reasonable, not even 300 roepies from what I recalled.
On this trek, I got lucky as a driver from Photoskar – the last leg of the trek before reaching Lamayuru – was going straight to Leh (3000 roepies).
My recommendation would be westbound as the road to Darch – the Manali-Leh road - can sometimes be closed due to snowfall. Also, finishing in Lamayuru is more pleasant with de presence of guesthouses and an interesting monastery.
Due to the road construction, the Zanskar trek has nowadays been split in two treks:
- from Darcha to Itchar
- From Pishu/Pidmo to Photoskar
In between is the town of Padum, with basic hotels, restaurants and shops. Padum also has a taxi service, although with high fixed prices, allowing you to travel early in the morning as far as Pidmo.
With a little bit of luck, it is possible to hitch a ride along from Itchar to Padum. Same for the Photoskar-Lamayuru leg.
Keep in mind that a large part, maybe up to 30% of the trek, when incorporating the Photoskar-Lamayuru leg, is now covered by a – mostly dirt - road (although mostly with very little motorised traffic).
Delhi airport has some ‘nap’ facilities – e.g. at the international arrival hall – that could allow you to catch some sleep between your arrival from abroad and your flight to Leh. Keep in mind that GoAir, one of the carriers flying to Leh does use terminal 1, not terminal 3 as Jet Airways, Indian Air and international carriers use, necessitating you to transfer by taxi or a free transfer bus.
My hotel recommendation e in Delhi would be Shanti Home, conveniently located between the airport and the city center (and next to a metro station). It is a small scale hotel but very well kept after and – most importantly – perhaps the best Indian – roof top - restaurant I have ever visited.
They offer airport pick ups for a fee.
My recommendation for Leh is the Padma Guesthouse (hotel section). Not luxurious though clean and confortable. Book early as it is popular. They will pick you from the airport for a small fee.
Both can be booked through email.
Along the trail, a tent is necessary. Around the Shingo La pass no villages exist, necessitating camping. Although there have been reports of travelers hiking without camping equipment, I would not recommend it.
I would only recommend a bivy bag for someone experienced with it. On this trek- end of June - I had a night with approx. 20cm snow (this is however fairly exceptional in June). On an earlier trek, in September, I had to cope with a couple of nasty showers. Precipitation is very low though. Ladakh has an alpine desert climate and most days will be dry.
Along the trek, some unofficially established camping areas exist, during season sometimes with a ‘tea tent’ (where one most often can buy noodles, soda drinks or tea). Phukthal and Purne both have a basic guesthouse (although the Purne guesthouse was not yet open when I passed at aprox. the 20th of June).
Most campers will be on guided tour though - very little independent trekkers.
It is not uncommon for trekkers to use ‘homestays’ along the trail: basically asking around a village if they can spend the night in a house with half boarding. I have done it a couple of times, with mixed experiences. In future, I will stick to camping and guesthouses.
Remember that Ladakh is very poor - homestays will consist of basic accomodation (often sleeping in the common room and eating together with the family in the kitchen), third world style.
Second week of June for the Zanskar travers, Markha trek, Karnak (read: no fording of big rivers). September for the more remote treks.
July and August will be busiers with organised treks and statistically has more rain (= the odd monsoon rain cloud coming over the Great Himalaya Range).
Climate in Leh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leh#Climate
Cell phone roaming has been disabled in Ladakh, so your cell phone will not work (but there is virtually no coverage anyway along the trail). Satellite phones are prohibited in India, although I – reluctantly - discreetly smuggle one in as I am a solo traveler (but make sure you’r not caught. I have been informed my Jamie McGuinness, the ‘uber himalaya expert’ that the Indian army scans for Thuraya signals and will even track the Thuraya satphone users down, so only use your satphone in case of emergency.
Leh has some internet cafés (and some guesthouses, including Padma offers Wifi). Keep however in mind that Leh suffers from power shedding. You won’t have internet access 24h/24h.
Language wise, English is widely understood & spoken.
Guidebooks & maps:
When going independently, I would highly recommend the Trailblazer guidebook ‘trekking in Ladakh’ by Charlie Loram.
The – recent – Cicerone Guidebook ‘trekking in Ladakh’ by Radek Kucharski would be my recommendation as an additional guidebook when doing more remote treks (This guidebook can also be purchased as an ebook).
There are some gpx-files on Wikiloc of the Zanskar traverse (search e.g. ‘Zanskar’ or ‘Lamayuru’). There are no descent garmin base maps of the region.
A topographic map is not necessary for the Zanskar trek. For more remote regions, the only descent topo maps are the ones provide by Olizane (this Swiss company basically initiated trekking in Ladakh). They have a 1/150000 scale, so not super accurate (although most often not necessary as the Ladakh landscape is generally fairly open).
You won’t spend a lot of money along the trail. Homestays will cost anything from 400 to 800 roepies per night, including diner & breakfast. Camping will normally cost 100 roepies and a hotel in Padum 800 roepies. Perhaps the most expensive cost could be the taxi around the Padum valley, unless you can share it with other travelers.
Obviously, cash is king. I would bring cash from Delhi (there are plenty of ATM’s at the International arrival hall).
Surprisingly, no permits are necessary for almost all trekking areas in Ladakh. Just hop in a bus and start walking. What a difference with Nepal.
The only thing I need is a Visa. Unlike Nepal however, visa on arrival is virtually nonexistent. Indian visas can also be quiet expensive (approx.. 70 euro for me (Belgian)).
I did this trek in nine day.
Leh is at approx. 3500m altitude. Most of the Zanskar trek is above 4000m, with one pass over 5000m (Shengi La). I would highly recommend taking Diamox to fasten acclimatization (I take 750mg/day first couple of days). Diamox can be bought on the cheap in Leh – no prescription needed (be aware of the potential side effects: tinseling at the fingertops & lips and you’ll pee like you have never done before – thus drink loads to compensate).
Voià, I hope this provides some personal insights in Zanskar. As I couldn’t do the trek I was initially planning, the Karnak region, I suppose I will have to get back someday…
Impressions of the Zanskar traverse: